You say tomato, I say to-may-toe: Bridging the third-language barrier in Vietnam

By Simon Stanley   May 4, 2017 | 11:01 pm PT
You say tomato, I say to-may-toe: Bridging the third-language barrier in Vietnam
A tourist gestures as she walks away from a vendor in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/T. Hang
If you’re still struggling to be understood, perhaps the problem lies with you.

I’ve never seen so much fuss caused over a slice of pie. Last week I was sitting in my usual spot in my usual café in Saigon's District 1 when two Spanish-speaking tourists walked in.

The girls, in their early 20s, spent a moment browsing the dessert cabinets before strutting up to the counter.

Now speaking in English, the taller of the pair placed her order. “Can I have a slice of chocolate pie?” she asked, pointing at the cold cabinet on her left, “but can I get it with a scoop of ice cream on the side of the plate?” She then pointed to the freezer cabinet on the right.

The young lady serving them, who I know speaks excellent English, looked confused. And I don’t blame her. Firstly, the girls both had thick Spanish accents — so thick that I, as a native English speaker, had to quickly retune my ears to understand her —  and secondly, it wasn't ice cream in the cabinet at all. It was gelato. And thirdly, she’d just used a whole heap of unnecessary words to order just two items from the menu.

“Ice cream,” the Spaniard repeated, jabbing at the glass. “This is ice cream, yes?”

Err, technically no.

“What flavor?” asked the server.

“Can I try some?” came the reply with a heavy Iberian lilt.

“Cappuccino? Small or large?” the server had misheard.

Then it all kicked off.

The manager was called. “Hello, do you speak English?” they asked as if they were speaking to a two-year-old. “Look,” the first girl said, “I just want a slice of chocolate pie with a scoop of ice cream on the side of the plate. And I would like to try the ice cream first. Why is that so hard for you to understand?”

A small crowd of staff had gathered by this point. They girls were now frantically miming those small disposable tasting spoons that Baskin Robbins dispenses. But we weren’t in Baskin Robbins. We were in a coffee shop in downtown Saigon, with a list of pies on one side of the menu, coffee and teas in the middle, and a selection of Italian gelato on the other.

Had they realized the source of the confusion, and instead had simply asked for “one slice of pie and one scoop of chocolate/vanilla/strawberry gelato,” they’d be sitting down to eat by now, sliding their beloved ball of “ice cream” from one plate to the other while avoiding the embarrassing scene now unfolding (and not leaving the poor girl who first took their order close to tears).

Interestingly, the same thing had happened to me just minutes before when I’d ordered one of their non-alcoholic cocktails. Except I came away with my drink, and my dignity.

“Can I have a mojito please?” I’d said, pronouncing it with the soft Spanish J in the “correct” way: Mo-hee-toe.

“Americano?” came the server’s reply.

“No. I’m sorry,” I said. “Mo-jee-toe.”

“Ah! Mojeeto!”


In the three years since I moved to Ho Chi Minh City, I’ve come to learn the quirks of “Vietnamese-English,” even if I do sometimes forget them.

I remember the time when I took a cab to the Rex Hotel, way back in 2014. I couldn’t fathom why the driver didn’t understand me. “The Rex Hotel?” I said again, slower and clearer, assuming such a landmark would be better known. Then I wrote it down.

“Ah!” he boomed. “Reh Hotel!”

And there it is. The third language.

In the case of two non-native English speakers conversing (or when one is trying to order pie from the other), the potential for confusion is even greater, and hence the need to adapt, adjust and slow the heck down.

I could have stood repeating “mo-hee-toe” or “Rex Rex Rex” over and over, getting louder and ruder every time (as these girls did). But it wouldn’t have helped.

“Can you put the ice cream on a plate?” the girl was now hissing at the manager. “The ice cream. The I-C-E C-R-E-A-M.”

(Yes, she even spelled it out).

It seemed that the tone and the volume of the girls’ voices, plus their general attitude and body language, had now completely overtaken the otherwise simple order that lay at the heart of the situation.

“What did we do?” I could imagine the staff asking themselves. “Do they want gelato, or pie? Or something else? And why are they so angry?”

The girls eventually stormed out empty-handed, huffing and puffing all the way to the door.

I see situations like this all the time, and they’re always excruciating to watch. Rather than adjusting their choice of words or their order to suit the Vietnamese ear, many foreigners, it seems, prefer to use volume and an arrogantly assumed level of superiority to get their point across.

And it never works.  

No doubt the two girls will return to their home country and tell everyone who will listen about how rude and incompetent everyone in Vietnam is. “They didn’t even know what ice cream was, and they had it on their menu!”

Of course, the staff knew exactly what ice cream was, although maybe they’d call it “I-cream” with a soft, almost imperceivable S sound, as per the conventions of their first language. Anyone who’s ever taken a cab to “Pasteur Street” will know this - “Ah! Pa-teur Treet.

And no, they didn’t have I-C-E C-R-E-A-M on their menu. It was gelato.

Remember, be clear, be concise, but above all, be polite.

* The article does not necessarily reflect the views of VnExpress International or VnExpress.

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